A better future is within reach, and one local coffee roaster is leading the way through the direct purchase of high quality specialty coffee from around the world.
My son learns about stages and types of coffee, drying at Vista del Lago in Costa Rica.
Yaggy Road Coffee Roasting Company started in a college dorm room, but is now the largest roaster in Northwest Indiana, supplying ten local coffee shops with high quality, specialty coffee from around the world. It’s owner and operator, Ben Montgomery, was part of that dorm-room past, and has himself grown into an artist and a force in his own right. His humble, practical air is interested in getting things done, for his coffee-drinking customers and for the farmers that supply them with delicious coffee.
When I spoke with Montgomery in his Valparaiso, Indiana, roaster, I got the same feeling I’ve had while visiting farms or organizations in Latin America – I was in the presence of an effort that is relatively small but on the cutting edge of creating a new future.
Ben Montgomery and Yaggy Road Roasting Company are experts in roasting, and also in relationships, both with producers around the world and coffee-lovers in Northwest Indiana.
In fact, this is the term that my colleague, David Norman, used to use when we were taking students around to visit organic farms, community conservation projects, and rural ecotourism lodges throughout Costa Rica and Nicaragua: cutting-edge. Montgomery and Yaggy Road represent that cutting edge: envisioning a new and different future for the coffee market; one that is built on mutual trust and solidarity. And it’s not the future; it’s already here.
Yaggy Road itself, despite being the largest roaster in the region, is relatively small, with a relatively simple mission. In this case, the main thing getting done is roasting coffee purchased directly from small farmers in places like Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Kenya, Guatemala, and Papua New Guinea, and distributing it to coffee shops in the Northwest Indiana area. The work seems simple enough, straightforward.
And yet the mission and philosophy that drive Yaggy Road are bigger than the entire worldwide coffee market, measured last year at $466 Billion.
Coffee samples from around the world to be tested, and the roast perfected, at Yaggy Road.
The Christmas breezes were blowing the white cotton-ball clouds over the high, green mountains. The navigation app had sent us through the “scenic route,” up and down steep inclines, around hairpin turns, through tiny towns built up next to the highway, where poor rural Costa Ricans had built their homes and the government grandfathered them into the formal town settlements.
Getting to Vista del Lago means driving through the beautiful Zona de los Santos.
It was Christmas Eve, and my husband and I had scheduled a last-minute visit for us and our kids and my mother-in-law to a family-owned and -run coffee farm in the Los Santos region of Costa Rica, one of the main areas known for this “golden grain” for the last century-plus. Farming doesn’t bring in the kind of money that it used to, and even coffee farmers now are turning to tourism to supplement the family income. So when we called the day before and requested a Christmas Eve Day tour, the answer was “Claro que sí.” The women of the household would cook us a three-course lunch of traditional Costa Rican fare, and the men would give us a tour of the coffee fields and processing plant.
The tour was at the Vista del Lago (Lake View) coffee farm and micro-processer, and the beauty of the place and friendliness of the family that received us did not hint at the struggle that it is to make it as small-scale coffee producers these days.
Here is why it's called Lake View Coffee Farm.
Our time picking coffee did hint at it, though! As part of the tour, we got to pick under the hot sun, on a steep hillside, getting scratched by sticks and bitten by bugs. It was a tourist experience, so it was fun overall, but it did take us much too long to fill our basket. If our income depended on our picking speed, we would have been left hungry and out in the cold.
We thoroughly enjoyed the experience of picking coffee. We were not "good" at it.
Don Berny and his son showed us the beds where the family dries the harvested coffee, the processing plant where the pulp is removed and the coffee prepared for export, and the tools they have learned to use to determine the quality of their coffee.
“My son is my right-hand man,” don Berny Navarro said with a smile that is typical of rural Costa Rican optimism and shyness. “Things haven’t been easy but we love our farm and our life, and we want to stay here.”
More and more, small scale producers are able to negotiate directly with their buyers, thanks to the internet and socially-conscious consumers. Vista del Lago is participating in such a direct market, and the pride that don Berny and his family exuded in their product is related to that direct access to their market. They have the opportunity to learn more details about their own coffee, its quality, its foreign market, and more. Farmers in such a position are thus a bit better able to ride the ups and downs of the market, and the obstacles that can come along to challenge their success. But these obstacles haven’t gone away, and some would say they are getting bigger.
When we visited Vista del Lago, the time had come to harvest the coffee, but Costa Rica was allowing very few foreign workers from Panama and Nicaragua into the country to do the work, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The coffee was going to rot in the field unless someone did something. During our visit, on Christmas Eve Day, don Berny was also negotiating with neighboring farms to share workers to pick his coffee on the Christmas holiday and weekends.
Other farms, such as the ones in the province of Alajuela that sell coffee to Yaggy Road Roasting Company, also experienced heavy losses due to recent hurricanes that slammed Central America, bringing extra rain to Costa Rica. Those events, coupled with the instability in weather patterns and the threat of coffee rust (a fungus) due to climate change, mean that yields have gone down.
A small processing plant, coffee-drying tables, and tools of the trade.
This is where the direct buying relationship that Yaggy Road has with its coffee producers comes in. Montgomery knows about the ups and downs that coffee farmers face. This last year in the pandemic, he was willing to pay 10 cents more per pound of coffee because that is what the farmers needed to make it work.
Montgomery also cares about the coffee he brings into his roaster from all of the farmers he works with. He tastes and tests each new coffee he receives, until he finds the notes and flavors that he wants to bring out in the coffee.
This is an art that I didn’t really understand before. My husband brews beer, and I have learned from him about the art of finding flavor, and of using the ingredients and recipe while also making a beer that is uniquely his. I can see that it is the same thing with coffee. Montgomery at Yaggy Road “listens” to his coffee, as he listens to the producers that grew that coffee, and he comes up with a roast and a flavor that is faithful to his understanding of that coffee and that farmer.
Coffee arrives to Indiana, is roasted at Yaggy Road in Valparaiso, and is sold by the pound or wholesale in the Northwest Indiana region.
My visit to Vista del Lago wasn’t the first coffee tour I had experienced in Costa Rica. I had been taking study abroad students to a nearby association for the over eight years, and I was able to study this region in my Master’s of Rural Development. But I have to say this farm is perhaps the most picturesque place that I have picked coffee – in Costa Rica that is saying a lot.
I can see why the family is dedicated to keeping their farm on this mountainside, with a view of the valley and Costa Rica’s newest hydroelectric plant lagoon. But that doesn’t mean it has been easy to find a way forward for their coffee. Ever since the original “Coffee Pact” years, during which the elite exporter-class in the capital negotiated good prices and wages and benefits with the coffee growing families and workers that they needed in order to produce this caffeinated commodity for the European market, the international coffee market has not been kind to small-scale producers.
Fortunately for Costa Rican coffee growers, there are institutional safeguards in place that make sure that the small-scale farms receive a relatively large share of the final market price.
Price fluctuations due to new countries entering the coffee market, weather events, competition from large plantations in South America, the recent coffee rust crisis, and of course Covid-19 all mean that coffee producers everywhere are always working very hard, with no guarantees of success.
“It really seems unfair that coffee growers spend a year of their lives taking care of their crop, pruning, taking care of pests, harvesting… and then I get to roast it for 15 minutes and put my name on the package,” says Montgomery. “That’s why I always try to put the names of the farms and even the farmers right on my packages.”
Montgomery talks about how his work is about relationships – bringing people together over a cup of coffee, and also connecting coffee consumers with coffee farmers in the most direct way possible. He lights up when he talks about the friendship he has with one of the main producers he works with, a farmer in Costa Rica who also has a vision to change the way the coffee market works.
Much of the Costa Rican coffee that Montgomery receives comes from a collection of producers in Costa Rica that are working on that cutting edge. The Farmer’s Project is a collection of five coffee farms in the Alajuela province with the following mission:
To cultivate quality coffee using sustainable practices and to establish long-term relationships with buying partners who believe in doing business with integrity and fairness in mind.
There is a lot of pride that comes along with producing high quality coffee.
There are a lot of certification programs that coffee farms can be a part of: fair trade, organic, Rainforest Alliance, bird-friendly, women’s empowerment and more. Many of those programs have a high cost of participation and aren’t accessible to small-scale producers. Direct-buying relationships, on the other hand, are built on trust. The roasters and producers know each other, and the roaster, who, as Montgomery points out, is the more privileged party in the relationship shows how much he or she values the producer by maintaining a relationship with the producer.
I recently heard a podcast about how many of the products we consume and services we rely on in this late-stage capitalist, industrial economy, are often shrouded in secrecy. We know very little about where our food comes from, who makes our clothes, how we get our gasoline, who fights our wars and how, and more. The general rule is not transparency, or trust. But transparency and trust are the foundations of the direct-purchase coffee at Yaggy Road.
While it’s not entirely clear what the best next steps are for the commodity markets we participate in, it seems like a great sign that coffee producers and roasters and consumers can all talk with each other, share struggles and triumphs, and enjoy a product and a practice of sitting down over a hot drink and getting to know each other. The coffee is great, too.
Cultural traditions and hand-made art welcome guests at Vista del Lago.